Mississippi jack, p.7
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       Mississippi Jack, p.7

           L. A. Meyer
 

  She looks away. "I dunno. It's early enough to get a crop in. Prolly ask some neighbors for help. Maybe find the best man I can around here and marry up with him so I can get some constant help. Prolly—"

  "Is that what you want, Katy, in your heart? Is that what you really want?" I have to stand on my tippy-toes to look into her eyes. Still she shies away and looks down.

  "No, I reckon I don't," she says quietly. "Ain't nothin' fer me here, neither, ain't nothin' fer me."

  "Then come with us, Katy, and see what lies ahead. Will you do that? I need you, as I ain't got no notion of this great land, and you can help." I give her shoulders a shake.

  She stands deep in thought for a while. Then she straightens up and shakes off my hands, and says, "Yeah, I reckon I'll go with you. See what's out there, anyways."

  "Good girl," I say, leaning up and putting a kiss on her forehead. "Now let's get settled for the night. Higgins. Jim. Come on in. Tomorrow, the river!"

  Chapter 12

  Jaimy Fletcher

  Brought low

  Somewhere in godforsaken America

  Dear Jacky,

  The girl Clementine got me unsteadily to my feet, saying, "We've got to get you away from here. They might come back to finish you off."

  I reeled and staggered my way out of that clearing next to the stream, leaning on the thin shoulders of that young girl, the one who had found me and who had, probably, saved my life. I was still confused, with my thoughts running about my head like wild things. With each upright step, though, my mind cleared some, and soon I was able to take stock of my situation: I was stark naked, with not a thing to my name—no money, no horse, no clothes, no personal belongings, not even a ribbon to bind back my hair, which fell lankly about my face as I struggled on. Those brigands even took the ribbon from my hair, I thought, vowing eternal revenge. I'll get you, you bastards, and you'll regret the day you ever thought to get the best of Jaimy Fletcher, by God, but then my head starts to spin and I sag against a tree. Even I know that to be an idle threat. I am such an utter fool....

  "Here. Come on, a little farther and you'll be safe. There. Sit down. Rest now." She propped me against a tree trunk and lifted the cool, wet cloth of her skirt once again to my forehead.

  "Looks like they tried to shoot you, boy," she said, dabbing away at the wound on my head, "but they missed. The bullet went alongside your head but not in it, thank goodness. Here, lean against me till you feel better," and her arms encircled me as she pressed my head against her breast, and I did feel better for it. So much so that when I relaxed and started to slip from consciousness once again, I thought I heard her say, "Thank you, God, for answering my prayers. He's just what I wanted. Thank you, thank you. Amen."

  When I awoke, she was again pulling me to my feet. "Come on, boy, we've got to get you back to our place 'fore dark 'cause you gonna get mighty cold out here, considerin' you ain't got no clothes on you. Here, give me your hand."

  As we stumbled along, my head began to clear, and it cleared enough for me to realize that I was walking through deep woods with a girl whilst stark naked.

  "Where are we going?" I asked.

  "Gonna try to get you to our barn 'fore Pap sees you, so's you can rest up and get better. Don't worry, I'm gon take real good care o' you ... What's your name?"

  "James ... Jaimy Fletcher."

  "Jaimy ... that's a real nice name. Y'know, Jaimy," she said, trying out my name, rolling it around on her tongue as if savoring the sound of it, "I prayed to God for Him to send me a boy to love and for Him to take me away and take care of me, and He sent me you. It's amazin'...that He delivered you naked and all, just like a newborn babe, sent from Heaven above."

  "Well, actually I came from across the ocean, from England, uh, Clementine, is it?" I said, somewhat doubtfully.

  She turned her head and smiled at me, and amidst my pain and humiliation, I saw that, despite her flimsy dress, once-white apron, and bare feet, she really was quite pretty—straight hair the color of corn silk, good straight teeth, slim frame, and the bluest eyes I had ever seen. She looked to be about fifteen or sixteen.

  "Uh-huh," she said, squeezing my hand. "I gotta admit I used to doubt things about God, seein' as how He put me on this earth in a miserable place, without a mama, just mean ol' Pap to kick me around, but He's made ever'thin' right now, that's for sure."

  "Um," I said, feeling somewhat less than Heaven-sent, "Clementine, if you could see your way clear to give me the loan of your apron, I would feel much more comfortable."

  We stopped walking and she put her hands behind herself to loosen the apron strings. She dipped her head and took off the garment. "You sure do talk funny, don't you?" she said, grinning. I do not believe she has stopped grinning since I arrived on the scene. "I like you just fine the way you are, but, here, turn around."

  I did so and she reached around my waist and tied the apron strings, at my back. I could feel her fingers working back there, and it seemed to take longer than really necessary. She was good in that she did not put the neck thing over my head, which would have made me look even more foolish, but instead folded the apron over so that it performed its function of covering my manhood without making me look like I wore part of a dress.

  "There," she said, "now you look jest like a real pale Injun."

  A flush went to my cheeks as she lightly patted my buttocks when she finished the job, then whispered, "Oh, thank you, God," yet again.

  We continued on through what I considered a trackless wilderness, but Clementine seemed to know where she was going, so I followed meekly behind.

  "So far from your home," I asked during our trek, "what were you doing by that stream?"

  "I go there sometimes to ... well, to get away ... to dream and hope about things. Maybe you could call it prayin', I don' know..."

  Eventually, we came to a cleared bit of land and she bade me crouch down and be quiet.

  "If we have any luck, Pap'll already have passed out from the drink and we'll be able to git you into the barn for the night."

  I looked out across the clearing and made out what looked like a large rough lean-to. A barn, hardly, but what did I know of this barbarous land? I kept my mouth shut, putting my trust in my guide.

  "Shush, now," she said, rising up. "Looks good. Come on. Quick!"

  I rose up, too, and together we ran across the open space to the door of the barn. Clementine lifted the bar and the door swung open.

  "In here! Quick! We'll get you into the loft and I'll be back later. I'll bring you some food. I'll—"

  "Yew'll what?" growled a low voice behind me. "Yew'll what? What the hell's goin' on here? And jus' who the hell are yew, anyway?"

  I turned around to discover that I was looking down the barrel of a very long rifle. Behind the rifle stood a very large and very dirty-looking man, unshaven and clad only in a pair of stained overalls, with one broken shoulder strap dangling from a hairy shoulder. His unkempt lank hair hung in his eyes. It was plain that he had been drinking, as he was unsteady on his feet and weaved about as he spoke.

  "Please, Pap," said Clementine. She wrung her hands piteously. "He's a boy what God give to me and I mean to keep him. Can I, Pap, please?"

  "I asked who the hell are yew?" said this creature to me, his deep-set eyes drilling into mine, the gun's barrel not wavering an inch from a spot between my eyes, in spite of its owner's drunken condition.

  "My name is James Emerson Fletcher and I am—"

  "Yew am in a ton of trouble, boy! Clemmie! Yew been out there in the wood ruttin' with this boy? Answer me true now."

  "No, Pap, I ain't, I...," she wailed.

  "Lift up yer dress, let me see yer drawers. Let me smell yew, so's I know what yew been doin', to see if'n his stink is on you, 'fore I kills this boy!"

  In spite of looking down the barrel of that gun, I gradually gathered my courage and found my voice. "Sir, I assure you that nothing of that sort has transpired. Your daughter did nothing but h
elp a poor waylaid traveler in distress!"

  "That so?" He looked at me and lowered the barrel. He poked me in the shoulder with it. "Turn around, boy." I sensed the barrel being brought up to the back of my head and I did it.

  "Why, this boy is butt-nekkid! Yew tellin' me yew ain't been up to somethin' nasty, Clemmie? Shame on yew!"

  With that, he took a hand from his rifle and backhanded his daughter across her face, and she went down, sprawled in the dirt. Still keeping the gun trained on me, he pulled up her skirt and peered under. Then, apparently finding nothing damning about the condition of her undergarments, he pulled the dress back down and said, "Both of you'uns. Get inside. C'mon, pretty boy, move it!"

  We went into the cabin. There was a fireplace, with several embers glowing in it, and a table on which rested an earthenware jug.

  "Yew. Stand over there where I can see yew," said this Mr. Jukes to me, gesturing with the barrel of the gun. "Clemmie. Make up the fire and git me somethin' t' eat."

  The girl, no longer the happy, free wood sprite I met in the forest, slumped over to throw some pieces of wood into the fireplace. She took down a pot from a hook overhead and spooned what I took to be cornmeal into it. Then she ladled in some water from a nearby bucket. Her face was now dead, a mask, totally devoid of expression. It was then that I noticed the bruises on her arms, neck, and lower legs. In my own pain and torment, I had not previously seen those very plain marks of pain and abuse upon her, more shame on me.

  The demeanor of the father, upon entering the cabin, completely changed from that of threatening bully to that of sneering, snickering bully. I wondered at it but figured that he perceived that I, barely half his size, was no physical threat to him, and so he could in all ease put aside the gun and lift the jug of spirits to his lips. He could not have known that I had been an officer in His Majesty's Royal Navy and, as such, trained in many ways of death-dealing, none of which, I had to admit, seemed to apply here, as I had no cannon, no pistol, no sword.

  "Yew look right pretty in that little apron, pretty boy, oh yes, yew do." He giggled, having yet another hit at the jug. "Whyn't yew come over here now and share a drink with me, hmmm?"

  "Sir, I would rather retire for the night, as I have had a very trying day. You and your daughter have been most gracious to me in my hour of need, but I am now in great need of sleep and would consider it most kind of you to let me gain that rest."

  "My, yew sure do talk funny," said Jukes, rising from the table. "But come with me and we shall put yew to bed, oh, yes."

  He took up his gun again and led me out into the farmyard and to the barn. On the way out, I caught Clementine's eye, but she gave a quick shake of her head in a warning way. I took the warning to heart.

  "Git in there, pretty boy, and up into the hayloft. In the mornin' we'll put yew to some work in payment fer yer lodging." He chuckled again. "And maybe even before then."

  I went in at the point of the barrel. There was a stall, with a very large plow horse in it, and a ladder up to the hayloft.

  "Up there, boy. That's it. G'night, now."

  With that, the barn door closed and I heard the locking bar fall down in place.

  I waited a long time, savoring the quiet and peace. Then I felt my way to the door and tried to figure out how to jimmy up the bar from inside. I am sure, Jacky, that you would have been out of this place in a minute and on your way, knowing your skill at escaping confinement, but I, alas, was found wanting, and the bar stayed in place and my attempt at fleeing this madhouse was thwarted. This whole country is a madhouse, as far as I am concerned, and I am sick of it.

  Bone tired, I crawled up the ladder and burrowed into the straw and fell instantly asleep.

  My sleep, however, was not to be undisturbed.

  I do not know how long I had been there when I felt her slip in beside me. When I started, she put her hand on my lips and said, "Shush, Jaimy, quiet now. Pap's passed out asleep, but still, it's best we be quiet, just in case."

  She wriggled around and her head came to rest on my shoulder and her arm draped around my chest. I felt her skin warm against mine. I did not feel any clothing and I knew that she wore none.

  "Ain't this nice, Jaimy? I kin feel your heart beatin' there under my hand. Mmmmm..."

  I was quite sure it was beating much faster now than it was before Miss Clementine Jukes's arrival. I could not protest, as that would raise an alarm and she would be in trouble with her father, and no telling what he would do to me.

  No, there was nothing for me to do but remain as I was, and forgive me, Jacky, but I did not find it the most unpleasant thing that happened to me on this day....

  Chapter 13

  I could smell the river way before we actually got there. While it lacks the salty tang of the ocean, smelling more of dark pools and grassy banks and fish, it was a most welcome aroma.

  We had spent the last night at Katy's place, getting as comfortable as we could on the few straw pallets that were left in the house. It was plain that someone had gone through the cabin during its time of abandonment and taken all of value. We did, however, manage to find a few saucepans and a banged-up old teapot, which Higgins judged could come in handy later, and Jim added them to our packs.

  Higgins has become quite lean and craggy-looking during these past few weeks on the road—the rough life is good for him physically, though it certainly doesn't suit his refined temperament. Still, he does not complain, and he maintains his good humor.

  Before we left, Katy asked me to rummage in my seabag for quill and ink so I could write a note on a fairly clean cedar shake she had found:

  This here farm belongs

  to Katherine Deere

  and I will come back

  to claim it someday

  so stay off it

  I wrote it down just as she said it, and we nailed it to the front door. Then we climbed on the horses and rode off. Though Katy was behind me and I could not see her, I sensed that she did not look back.

  "There it is!" shouts I, standing up in the stirrups and pointing to the gleaming ribbon of river lying in the valley down below. "The Allegheny River, at last."

  "Yes, and a most welcome sight it is, Miss," says Higgins, with feeling. "Although this stoic beast has been very accommodating of my bulk these past weeks, still, if I never again see him or any of his brethren, I shall be content."

  "Don't be expectin' too much down there, Jacky," warns Katy into my left ear. "East Hickory's only a little itty-bitty town."

  "I'm sure it will serve, dear, for all we will need is to find us a boat to take us down the river," says I, full of hope and anticipation. "Let's go!" And we pound down into the river valley.

  "Itty-bitty" is an understatement. East Hickory consists of a general store that, as a matter of fact, doesn't seem to have much in it, a stable containing a few dispirited swaybacked nags, a smelly tannery, and a rickety dock sticking out into the flowing stream—a very swiftly moving stream, I note. The Allegheny, being about a quarter-mile wide at this point, has a lot of water moving downstream. And this is the littlest of the rivers we will ride? I wonder.

  It turns out that the man who runs the general store—a fat, fussy little man with a squeaky voice—also runs the stables and the commercial dock, at which, I notice with dismay, no boats are tied.

  We dismount at the foot of the dock, and the little man hurries up to us.

  "Welcome to East Hickory," he squeaks. "My name is Enos Tweedie. What will be your pleasure? We have the finest of whiskey and some very good beer." There is a board balanced on sawhorses at the dock's entrance, and Mr. Tweedie lays out several bottles and glasses thereon, then peers at us expectantly. This, apparently, is what passes for a tavern in East Hickory, Pennsylvania, in the United States of America.

  I decide that the Fine Lady persona will serve us best here, so I put on the Lawson Peabody Look and say, "Mr. Higgins will have a whiskey, and Miss Deere and I will each have a glass of wine. And a beer for young Ma
ster Tanner, if you please, Landlord Tweedie." I pull up the small purse that hangs at my waist.

  I can see that he is pleased to be addressed as such, and extremely pleased by the sight of my purse.

  "Yes, oh, yes," he chortles, and he goes to pour some whiskey into a glass for Higgins.

  "Wait," says Higgins, as he takes the empty glass from Mr. Tweedie's hand, holds it up to the light, frowns, pulls out a spotless handkerchief, and proceeds to polish it. Then again he holds up the glass to the light. "Ah. That is much better. We wouldn't want to sully the taste of your finest of whiskeys with a less-than-clean glass, now, would we?"

  Mr. Tweedie, somewhat amazed, takes the glass back and fills it with brown liquid and places it in front of Higgins, then says, "Sorry, Miss, but no wine until the elderberries get ripe."

  "A beer, then," I say, and a foaming tankard is put in front of me. I stick my nose in it and drink. It is very poor. Very poor. I look over at a silo that stands next to the tannery and suspect that there is a spigot at the bottom of it. The silage is soaked from the rain leaking in at the top, and the so-called beer comes out the bottom. But I drink it, anyway, as I cannot offend my host, from whom I will want to get some information.

  "You got any birch beer?" asks Katy.

  "Oh, yes, Miss, right down here." He stoops down and picks up another jug.

  "Good. One for me and one for the boy."

  Jim tastes his and his eyes open. "Oh, that's good," he says.

  "Thought it might be," says Katy, tasting hers. She looks at me over the top of her glass, and I think she's saying silently to me, Y'oughta check with what the locals are gettin 'fore you plunge ahead, girl.

  I take that silent advice to heart. I push my very sorry beer to the side and say, "I'll try some of that."

  Another glass is put in front of me, and I look at the clear liquid and then I taste it. My, that is good! It reminds me a bit of the sassafras root beer that Amy had at Dovecote.

 
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